Seven years ago at UFC 100, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first centennial gala event, there was a lingering feeling of perseverance in the air. We were just eight years removed from Zuffa (the company owned by the casino mogul Fertitta brothers and run by the pugnacious and ever-present Dana White) purchasing the UFC for $2 million in 2001, which, at the time, didn’t feel like a bargain so much as like buying stock in leprosy. Nobody was touching cage fighting back then. It was illegal in most places. So when UFC 100 rolled around in 2009, with its cast of stars including Brock Lesnar and Georges St-Pierre, it felt like a big middle finger that White was holding up to the many doubters he’d faced as UFC president. He even said that if UFC 100 eclipsed 1.5 million PPV buys, he’d BASE jump off the top of the Mandalay Bay casino.
The show did somewhere in the range of 1.6 million buys, which remains a company record, yet White never jumped.
A lot has changed since those carefree days of wild boasts. The early apparel that fans and athletes wore seven years ago — featuring skeleton armies, usually, or blood-soaked fleurs-de-lis — has been tamed considerably. Since the UFC’s deal with Reebok, athletes have been streamlined and homogenized. Everyone looks alike. The 2011 Fox television deal has made the sport more accessible to the masses, further building up our cultural tolerance toward watching people take elbows to the face. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is peeking into everybody’s supplement jars, making sure everyone is on the straight and narrow. And mixed martial arts is now legal in all 50 states, including New York, which became official this year.
Oh, and Zuffa, the company that tried valiantly to convince us that (A) fighting was in our DNA and (B) MMA was the fastest-growing sport in the world, is said to be selling the UFC for somewhere in the ballpark of $4 billion.
That’s where we’re at heading into UFC 200, which takes place Saturday night at the new T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas — somewhere between "wow!" and "what the hell’s going on?" Some see a loaded card. Some see what could have been. Most are stuck somewhere in between.
That’s because UFC 200 was originally supposed to feature women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, who had been operating simultaneously as the sport’s biggest star, the Royce Gracie of women’s MMA, a best-selling author, a pop culture phenom, and the campaign leader against "do-nothing bitches" worldwide. Yet she lost against Holly Holm at UFC 193 in November — pretty catastrophically — and has since been lost to introspection and Hollywood scripts. Poof. She’s gone. And nobody’s sure if she’ll ever come back.
After Rousey went on walkabout, UFC 200 was going to feature a rematch between Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor, a playback of their makeshift bout at UFC 196, which Diaz won at an agreed-upon catchweight of 170 pounds. That proposed rematch didn’t sit well with everybody. With so many contenders at 145 pounds waiting for a crack at his featherweight title, McGregor was effectively hijacking a whole division. But that fell through, too. The UFC yanked McGregor from the card for refusing to do a promotional tour in the States to help sell it, and that rematch is now scheduled for UFC 202 in August.
Still, even without the megastars Rousey and McGregor, UFC 200 is a ridiculously stacked card — maybe the most stacked card the UFC has put on, better than all 199 before it. Former champions TJ Dillashaw, Johny Hendricks, and Gegard Mousasi are all on it, and they are all on the prelims. Here’s your guide to the big fights of the night — not that there’s any shortage of them.
The Headliners: Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier
Jon Jones rendered everybody in his division obsolete by the time he was 22, and booking him at 28 to fight just about anybody feels like a charade. That includes Daniel Cormier, who came down from heavyweight with the goal of fighting Jones. Heading into UFC 182 last year, the undefeated Cormier was the closest thing to a challenge that Jones had on paper. For once, there was competitive intrigue to a "Bones" Jones fight. Yet even in that one, Cormier — an Olympic wrestler — couldn’t outwrestle Jones. And even when he got inside that nearly 85-inch wingspan, there were no Hail Marys to be found. There were just elbows and forearms coming his way, and waves upon waves of futility.
Cormier lost, and it was as if Jones snatched a part of his soul.
So what’s different this time? The possessions, mostly. Jones was stripped of his title after a hit-and-run incident in Albuquerque last spring, and Cormier won the title in his absence. It has gnawed at Jones to watch Cormier masquerade around with that belt for the last year. The two seem to legitimately hate each other. The enmity is so personal that it’s like eavesdropping on a lover’s spat when they appear at press functions together. Cormier knows how to goad Jones.
With four straight unanimous decisions going back to his close encounter with Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165, Jones may be well served by a streak of bitter resentment. Before Gustafsson, he’d won eight of his last nine fights via either submission or knockout. Maybe we get back the freelance striker who was as likely to throw a spinning elbow as he was to suplex somebody through the canvas. Maybe we get the ruthless Jones who choked out Lyoto Machida and dropped his limp body cold on the fence as he walked away without a second glance.
It’s complicated with Jones, who holds records both in and out of the cage. People love to hate him for being great in spite of his obvious duplicity, not for being bland on top of it. The Jones who dominated Ovince Saint Preux for five rounds in April to get the interim title lacked imagination. Maybe it’s unfair, but Jones is so good that merely dominating a fight isn’t enough for everybody. People are satisfied only when he’s great. And being so great that he can get by with indifference on fight night just confuses the hell out of his critics, who’ve already settled on their reasons to hate him.
The Marquee Name: Brock Lesnar
Nobody will forget the time Lesnar extracted the horseshoe out of Frank Mir’s ass at UFC 100, and then frothed at the mouth in the post-fight interview. That was really his greatest moment from his first stint in the UFC. After losing to Mir in a fluke deal back at UFC 81, the heavyweight champion got his revenge. (He stampeded Mir on a canvas still soaked with Mac Danzig’s blood, who was popped open by Jim Miller seven fights earlier.) And afterward he declared he was going to grab a Coors Light — in lieu of Bud Light, the UFC’s official sponsor — and, who knows, maybe even get on his wife later on that night.
That strong performance mixed with such pent-up rage and libido went a long way at the time. There were millions of eyes on him at that moment. Lesnar was the company’s biggest star. And he was a lunatic caught between identities — the pro wrestling star and the legit fighter — which was fascinating, too.
He left UFC in 2011 and went to WWE after a bout of diverticulitis seemed to end his cage career, and the recent announcement of his return to UFC momentarily shocked the sports world. As he returns after four and a half years to the literal world of fighting, there are some big curiosities in play for his fight with Mark Hunt. One, can he take a punch? Because he didn’t like getting hit back in the day, and Hunt punches exceedingly hard. Two, can he take the fight to the ground? Because Hunt is best handled when he’s flailing from his back. And three, is the WWE crossover star still the draw he was to MMA fans in 2009? Back then it was a partition hop from fiction to nonfiction. Now, in a cameo role to turn an event into an event, does he still compel casual fans to watch?
(The guess here is yes. And should he beat Hunt similarly to how he beat Mir, that asterisk we put on his career due to his diverticulitis will become the size of a beach ball, and suddenly we’ll be wondering how he’d match up against Derrick Lewis, Stipe Miocic, or, hell, maybe even Fedor Emelianenko.).
The Women’s Bantamweight Picture
The women’s 135-pound division still lives in Rousey’s shadow. Miesha Tate can blast through Amanda Nunes in her first title defense at UFC 200 and she’ll still be celebrating in that shadow. Rousey beat Tate twice, the first time for the Strikeforce title in 2012, and then again a year and a half later after Rousey had already emerged as an iconic star. When Holm beat Rousey at UFC 193, the division got flipped on its ear, and Tate — who had no easy way back to the top so long as Rousey was there — suddenly had an opening. When she beat Holm in her next fight, the title picture started looking like a Spirograph.
Since the first UFC women’s division opened for business in 2013, the fighters have just wrecked each other psychologically. One wins, and the other enters a dark phase of her career. Tate, for her part, has been the most resilient of the bunch. She has bounced back and won five straight since her last loss to Rousey, and now she wears a vindictive, shit-eating grin when Rousey’s name comes up.
There were plenty of people (myself included) who thought Rousey might resurface the moment Tate won the belt, but that hasn’t been the case. Rousey is still dealing with her first loss. She may never come back, though it’s hard to imagine somebody who built an industry on her competitiveness permanently going out the way she did. And Rousey isn’t the first woman to spend time away after suffering a loss. In fact, it’s the norm. Carla Esparza beat Rose Namajunas to become the first strawweight champion, and Namajunas — who was being labeled the "next Ronda Rousey" during the taping of The Ultimate Fighter 20 — was out 10 months putting the pieces back together. She even shaved her head before her short-notice fight with Paige VanZant, not wanting it to become a beauty contest. The new "Thug" Rose didn’t seem in a hurry to meet anyone’s expectations. In her time away, she became a different person.
Esparza then lost to current 115-pound champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and didn’t return for 13 long months. Bethe Correia, who got knocked out by Rousey at UFC 190, didn’t come back for eight months. And even Cat Zingano, who will fight against Julianna Pena during the UFC 200 prelims, is making her first trip back to the octagon since losing to Rousey at UFC 184 in just 14 seconds. That fight devastated her.
In other words, no matter what happens with Nunes-Tate and Zingano-Pena, don’t expect the bantamweight picture to clear up after Saturday night. Evidence suggests it will likely become murkier.
Aldo-Edgar: The McGregor Sweepstakes Fight
With McGregor now official to rematch Diaz in August, the least the UFC could do was create a second (interim) featherweight belt to put in play while he’s out moonlighting. Frankie Edgar will fight longtime 145-pound champion Jose Aldo for the placeholder title. What that translates to is a shot at McGregor, probably at the UFC’s inaugural show in New York City at Madison Square Garden in November. (And what that translates to is a lot of money.)
Aldo and Edgar fought at UFC 156, when the former lightweight champion Edgar finally gave in to company pressure and moved down to 145 pounds. Aldo won a decision. But Edgar’s striking coach, Mark Henry, has spent nights seeing that rematch play out in his head. He’s even gone so far as to work out his instructions in different languages, so that Aldo’s corner people can’t intercept his transmissions. This was a fight that Aldo and Edgar coveted, but it wasn’t a fight that either necessarily wanted right now — not with McGregor hovering out there like seven big digits. Yet what a fantastic, tragic, career-altering fight Edgar-Aldo is. With the cut to 145 pounds so extreme and other weight classes to conquer, McGregor isn’t long for the division. He may fight there only one more time before he bolts to lightweight (and beyond). One of them, Aldo or Edgar, will have to lose, and that means (most likely) kissing the McGregor fight — and all those zeroes — goodbye forever.
It’s crazy, too, to kill off such a contender. Aldo has lost just once in 10 years, and that was to McGregor at UFC 194 in December — a 13-second knockout. He’s been tortured by his desire for a rematch, given that the first fight boiled down to a single exchange amid a career of dominant rounds and nine title defenses. All that legacy shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet in 13 seconds.
Meanwhile, Edgar is on the verge of becoming the least-discussed pocket-size giant the sport has ever known. He’s been pretty vocal about being passed over for title shots in recent months, and a pissed-off Frankie Edgar is a deadly one. Look what he did to Chad Mendes in December. To never see Edgar-McGregor at this point would be a travesty.
Twist of Cain
During the high point of his career, between 2010 and 2013, Cain Velasquez was caught in a career fun house, hallucinating the same faces again and again. He lost the heavyweight title to Junior Dos Santos, beat Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva to become the no. 1 contender, then reclaimed the title from Dos Santos. He then beat Silva in his first title defense, before taking on Dos Santos a third time. It got to the point where it was hard to imagine him fighting anybody other JDS or Bigfoot.
Yet he finally did in June of last year, when, after a series of injuries, he lost his title to Fabricio Werdum — a fight that had its own nightmarish tint. Forever known for his cardio, Velasquez wasn’t himself out there in Mexico City, a market the UFC broke into using his name. The 7,300-foot altitude did him in as much as Werdum’s punches — to the point that fans split him in two: There was that Cain, and there was "Sea-Level Cain," the one who looked like the UFC’s greatest heavyweight of all time.
Because he’s fought just once in three years due to various injuries, it’s easy to forget how good Velasquez is (or once was). He changed Dos Santos in that brutal trilogy, and he nimbly played the role of matador in his title fight with Lesnar, before brutalizing the bull on the ground. That he’s the opening act on a PPV in his fight with Travis Browne at UFC 200 is both a testament to how stacked the card is and how far he’s fallen.
But really, there’s no right order for UFC 200. Look at the opening fight — Takanori Gomi against UFC 100 alum Jim Miller. That’s not a fight to bury — that’s a showcase fight on any other main card. Same goes for Joe Lauzon’s bout with Diego Sanchez, or Dillashaw’s revenge fight with Raphael Assuncao. From those fights to any of the three title fights, it’s a gathering of brand names, contenders, wily veterans, superhumans, rematches, former champions, play champions, and current ones. It’s a card with a little bit of everything — somewhere between "wow" and "what the hell?" — which is a hell of a long way from the nothing the UFC started with 15 years ago.
Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting.